Rev. Thomas Ogletree, Advocate For UMC Same-Sex Marriage Changes, Dies

Obituary via Guilford Funeral Home

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Warren Ogletree, the Frederick Marquand Professor Emeritus of Theological Ethics at the Yale Divinity School, and its former dean, passed away on Wednesday, January 4, 2023, at Artis Senior Living in Branford, Connecticut. He was 89 years old.

Dr. Ogletree served as dean of Yale Divinity School from 1990 to 1996, and the Theological School at Drew University from 1981 to 1990. An ordained United Methodist minister, he previously served as pastor of congregations in Alabama, Wisconsin, and Tennessee.

Dr. Ogletree was born on June 17, 1933 in Scant City, Alabama, so named for its reputation as a place to purchase a “scant” of moonshine during Prohibition. A child of the Great Depression, he grew up in Birmingham, the son of Carrie, a church organist, and Warren, an engineer at United States Steel. In middle school, he was selected for an academic enrichment program for gifted students, which had a transformational effect on his trajectory. As an adolescent, Dr. Ogletree delivered newspapers in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Birmingham – an experience that catalyzed an awareness of what he described as “the evils and cruelties of racism” and planted the seeds for what became a lifelong commitment to social justice.

While pursuing his undergraduate studies at Birmingham Southern University in Alabama, he served as founding pastor of Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church at age 19, and completed his bachelor’s degree in 1955. In 1959, he graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. There, his studies and friendship with James H. Cone, who went on to become a leading voice in Black liberation theology, accelerated his commitment to activism and scholarship.

Soon after he began his doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, he became involved in the sit-in movement, under the leadership of fellow student and renowned activist James Lawson. After receiving a doctorate in 1963, he accepted an appointment at Chicago Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, where he had the privilege to serve as an Advisory Board member for Operation Breadbasket, led by his then-student, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. (Dr. Ogletree later wrote, “he taught me more than I could have possibly have taught him”).

Later, Dr. Ogletree pursued advanced studies through a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Cross-Disciplinary Fellowship from the Society for Values in Higher Education at the Free University in West Berlin, Germany from 1968 to 1969, and at the Sorbonne in Paris, France from 1973 to 1974. From 1974 to 1978, he served as a professor of ethics at Vanderbilt University.

In 1978, Dr. Ogletree was appointed the director of graduate studies in religion at Vanderbilt University, and in 1981 became dean of the Theological School at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. After nearly a decade in that role, he was appointed dean of the Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. As dean, he was instrumental in partnering with the faculty and administration to preserve the Yale Divinity School campus, raising significant funds to preserve and upgrade the facilities. He also took steps to diversify the Divinity School’s faculty and staff by bringing on women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals into leadership roles.

After stepping down as dean in 1996, he continued to teach, write, and serve in a variety of leadership roles until his retirement in 2007. In 2013, he made national news when he officiated the wedding of his son, which led to a formal investigation by the United Methodist Church for his violation of rules forbidding ordained clergy from performing weddings for same-sex couples. In 2014, thanks to his leadership, the church issued a just resolution that prevented prosecution of clergy for performing weddings for gay and lesbian couples.

Dr. Ogletree is the author of five books: The World Calling: The Church’s Witness in Politics and Society; Christian Faith and History: A Critical Comparison of Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Barth; The Death of God Controversy; The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics; and Hospitality to the Stranger: Dimensions of Moral Understanding. He is co-author of From Hope to Liberation: Towards a New Marxist-Christian Dialogue and co-editor of Lifeboat Ethics: Moral Dilemmas of World Hunger. In addition, he published numerous scholarly articles in journals, encyclopedias, and essay collections. He was editor of Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal and a founding editor of The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics. Beginning in 1980, he served on the editorial board of The Journal of Religious Ethics, with one term as associate editor, and where he also served as a trustee.

Dr. Ogletree was one of the principal drafters of the current United Methodist Disciplinary statement on doctrinal standards. He was a life member of Clare Hall at Cambridge University and a fellow at Pierson College at Yale. He received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Livingstone College and Hood Theological Seminary in 1995, an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Birmingham-Southern College in 1991, and an honorary Master of Arts from Yale University in 1990.

Dr. Ogletree is survived by his wife, the Rev. Mary-Lynn Ogletree, of North Branford, Connecticut; his five children and their spouses (Dr. Frank Ogletree and Dr. Marie-Paule Delplancke of Berkeley, California and Brussels, Belgium; Julie Ogletree and Loie Hayes of Boston, Massachusetts; Lauren and Mark Reitter of Sebastian, Florida; Tom Ogletree and Nicholas Haddad of Brooklyn, New York; and Kathryn Ogletree and Ben Story of Los Angeles, California); his sister Bette Prestwood of Decatur, Georgia; six grandchildren (James Bernick, Rachel Bernick, Avery Hayes, Micah Hayes, Rowan Story, and Finley Story); and four nieces, their spouses, and children.

Dr. Ogletree read the New York Times cover to cover every single day, loved Ashley’s Heath Bar ice cream and cheap but decent Sauvignon Blanc, and could readily direct most any conversation back to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. He had a beautiful high tenor singing voice, and was exceptionally proud of his academic accomplishments, his children, and his grandchildren.

Funeral services will take place on Saturday, January 14 at 11.30AM at Marquand Chapel at the Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St, New Haven, CT. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Yale Divinity School’s social justice and greater good initiatives; at 409 Prospect St, New Haven, CT 06511;